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Is displacement possible without language? Evidence from preverbal infants and chimpanzees


Is displacement possible without language? This question was addressed in a recent work by Liszkowski and colleagues (Liszkowski, Schafer, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2009). The authors carried out an experiment to demonstrate that 12-month-old prelinguistic infants can communicate about absent entities by using pointing gestures, while chimpanzees cannot. The main hypothesis of their study is that displacement does not depend on language but is, however, exclusively human and instead depends on species-specific social-cognitive human skills. Against this hypothesis, we will argue that a symbolic representation is needed to intentionally communicate absence and that this symbolic representation is tied to language. Moreover, data on the expression of displacement in home-sign systems will be taken into consideration. In light of this data, and in opposition to Liszkowski et al.’s (2009) claim, this paper will argue that displacement gestures are not foundational to language. Instead, they predate and predict the expression of complex forms of negation because they are specifically foundational to them.